Window of opportunity closed — Boks on outside looking in at Six Nations
The 2024 Six Nations starts in two weeks, with South Africa, which has made the transition north at club level, locked out of the international tournament.
For players with both European club and Springbok ambitions, the bad news is that South Africa won’t be included in an expanded Six Nations before 2031, if at all.
Two years ago it looked certain that South Africa would enter the Six Nations, but the landscape has changed. World Rugby’s introduction of the Nations League has cemented the status quo until 2031 at least.
In 2023, the World Rugby Council agreed to a new 12-team Nations League starting in 2026. It will feature the Six Nations countries: England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales; the four Rugby Championship teams: Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; and probably Japan and Fiji.
Part of the agreement to make this competition work was ringfencing the Six Nations in terms of participating teams and reducing its length by a week — from seven to six weeks.
That was the death knell for South Africa’s ambitions of fully aligning with the Northern Hemisphere at club and country level — at least until after 2030 when the Nations League will be reviewed.
Club versus country
It’s a blow for player welfare too, despite a successful introduction at club level for South African teams.
The Bulls and Stormers are showing good form in the Investec Champions Cup, the strongest continental rugby tournament on the planet now that Super Rugby is just an extension of the New Zealand domestic game.
The Sharks, Cheetahs and Lions are in playoff position in the secondary Challenge Cup, and in the United Rugby Championship (URC), the Bulls, Stormers and Lions could all make the playoffs by the end of the campaign.
The notion that crowds would not attend games during the traditional summer holidays has been debunked with the Stormers pulling in more than 30,000 per game in their last three matches.
The Bulls and Sharks (despite their poor form on the field in the URC), are still drawing bigger crowds than most Northern Hemisphere clubs.
And with so many Springboks who won Rugby World Cup 2023 campaigning for foreign clubs, spaces have opened up for South Africa’s next band of players to be exposed to a high level of rugby in Europe, in massively varying conditions.
In short, the move north looks like a much better proposition for South Africa than staying in a bloated, cumbersome and jetlag-plagued Super Rugby Pacific.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some teething issues for South Africa moving north and that it’s perfect.
Teams flying to the north and back have often travelled via the Middle East, with large rugby players, battered and bruised, crushed into economy class.
The extremes in weather conditions from one week to the next are also a factor. The oppressive humidity in Durban at this time of the year and the soaring temperatures in the rest of South Africa make it challenging, but not insurmountable.
Additionally, the South African Rugby Union (Saru), is not yet a full shareholder in the URC and European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), which oversees the Champions and Challenge Cups.
Saru has bought its way into these competitions at a cost of R330-million per season, according to its last annual report. The upside is healthy future dividends when it does become a full member in 2025.
But the biggest issue for South Africa is player welfare. Put simply, South Africa’s elite Test players who are not based in Japan, have barely had a week off for two years because the Springboks straddle two hemispheres.
The Boks are still contractually bound to the Rugby Championship, featuring the All Blacks, Wallabies and Pumas, until 2025. That tournament, played in August and September, is usually when Northern Hemisphere players would have an off-season.
Players only involved in the URC and EPCR competitions generally have an eight-week break. Bok players do not. Members of the victorious RWC 2023 squad only had three weeks off after the tournament.
It’s simply not enough to mentally and physically refresh, which is why players are breaking down.
Props Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch were both injured at the World Cup and have not turned out at all this season for the Stormers and Sharks, respectively. Hooker Bongi Mbonambi was also injured in the final and will miss the season.
How this relates to the Six Nations is obvious. It would make sense for the Boks to be in it so players are on the same timetable as their Northern Hemisphere club rivals.
Traditionalists though, never liked the idea and the addition of another team into the tournament, which would lengthen the Six Nations.
South Africa’s move north was also not warmly welcomed by France and England. But Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy were more progressive in their thinking.
The Celtic nations and Italy understood the challenges of including South Africa in the URC and could see some negatives, but they also realised the tremendous potential of having such a powerful rugby country in their competition structures.
The URC has been successful commercially and in terms of viewership and engagement. Since the URC started in 2021, three English clubs have folded due to bankruptcy.
France and England are slowly coming around to accepting South Africa in the north (the Boks’ success over France and England at last year’s RWC hasn’t helped relations), but they are still reluctant to open the Six Nations to the Boks.
They would prefer to see the Rugby Championship moved in the calendar. And that might be the best solution.
At last year’s World Rugby discussions in Paris, a lot of pressure was applied to New Zealand Rugby (NZR) to move the Rugby Championship into the Six Nations window in February and March.
By doing that, it would allow the Boks to continue in the Rugby Championship while creating a window for players to rest in August and September.
NZR is loath to move into the Six Nations window though, with good reason. It would have an enormous impact on the already struggling Super Rugby Pacific tournament.
As it is, Australia can barely field a competitive Wallabies team, so imagine pulling out 30 of their players from the Super Rugby franchises to play in a summer Rugby Championship.
It would also mean the extraction of a host of All Blacks from the club competition. But it’s something the Northern Hemisphere clubs have long had to contend with when the Six Nations is being played.
Club rugby in Europe does not completely stop during the Six Nations, although there are more bye weekends than usual.
The reality is though, that South African clubs and the Springboks add commercial and viewership value. Saru has no plans, even in the long term, to retreat to Southern Hemisphere club competitions, so something has to give.
The Rugby Championship looks increasingly unlikely to have any choice but to move into a new window for the sake of global alignment. DM